Formations 04.28.2019: Witnesses to the Resurrection

Andrej Rublëv and Daniil Cherni. Ascension of Christ, 1408.

Luke 24:36-53

I’ve noticed that Easter brings my attention to the place I call home. Often, it has been the geography of my particular neighborhood. This year, it has been the history of Birmingham itself.

I was reminded that it was this week in the liturgical year that Martin Luther King, Jr. published his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963). He was in Birmingham as part of a campaign planned around the seasons of Lent and Easter. Organizers intended to disrupt the second-most-lucrative shopping season of the local economy as a protest against segregation in businesses and city government.

On Good Friday the public safety commissioner (named “Theophilus” but better known as “Bull”) arrested him. The following week he wrote the letter responding to eight of the state’s clergy who challenged the methods of direct action and who advised legal avenues of change. They asserted, in what I suspect was a common opinion, that King’s presence was “unwise and untimely.”

Since his death, King has rightfully been held up as a hero in American life, but the challenges of being faithful to celebrated memories have become clear too. For example, many contemporary anti-racist movements position their work as an extension of mid-century civil rights movements. At the same time, it isn’t uncommon to hear King’s words invoked to oppose these same movements, often with appeals that echo those of the eight clergy.

This tension is at the heart of this week’s passage in Luke. How can we honor the facts of a person’s life after they are gone? The passage itself signals the fundamental danger of ascension—our forgetfulness. Jesus comes to the disciples and he talks about his body. He asks for food and eats broiled fish (vv. 41-42). He tells them to see his hands and feet and to touch them (v. 39). John would remind us they bear the marks of nails (20:20, 25-27).

These stories of Jesus’ broken and needy body often center my reflection on resurrection. I am uncomfortable with ascension, even with the central confession that “he is risen indeed!” In my mind, the celebration of eternal life and the image of him “carried up into heaven” threaten to undo that fact of Christ crucified (v. 51).

I came to thinking about Dr. King and his memory in order to question the value of ascension, to draw out Jesus’ focus on his physical body. A commercial from the 2018 Super Bowl emblemizes the problem. Behind scenes of people serving alongside Dodge Ram vehicles, viewers hear King’s often quoted words: “Everybody can be great…You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

These words come from a sermon on Mark 10 about James and John’s request for glory in the coming kingdom. The irony is priceless as King criticizes the drive toward materialism: “Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers…In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car.” My point stands. It is a failure of memory when words from a sermon that criticizes car culture are used to sell cars. But as I read “The Drum Major Instinct” (1968), I also recognized my hesitance to embrace ascension as another failure, one of imagination.

King shifts from his interpretation of glory in light of materialism to an interpretation in light of racism and militarism. He describes a scene from a Birmingham jail, in which his white jailers would come to discuss the “race problem,” defend segregation, and oppose direct action. And he told the congregation that he started preaching and then they started talking. When he asked about how they lived and how much they earned, King responds,

“You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes…You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people.”

Some of what we think is real isn’t, and may need transformed from these ways of seeing—just like Paul and Silas’s imprisoners (Acts 16:25-40). It is a kind of ascension from lies that keep us separated and dead in sin. For King, the church, at its best, opens the door for entering into a real consciousness, one that can’t be broken. Here, he preaches, we are not ultimately doctors, lawyers, teachers, or sanitation workers. We are human beings, all equally dignified with the image of God.

This is the problem and challenge of Jesus’ ascension. In his absence, we must witness violations of the divine image, of human rights to life. We’ve seen them from an ancient hill “called The Skull” to our hometowns. But witnessing crucifixion isn’t Jesus’ last word. Instead, they ring out much like those from this sermon, King’s last at Ebenezer Baptist Church. From the shadow of the cross, we must imagine resurrection and proclaim places where it has come to be, through repentance, justice, forgiveness, blessing, service, and love.

Discussion

  • What are the wounds of crucifixion that we encounter in our community? In our history?
  • How can we honor those wounds that we have caused? That we have received?
  • What does our neighborhood or our city look like in light of God’s kingdom?
  • How might the promises of Easter encourage us to act imaginatively in service of our neighbors?

Reference Shelf

Resurrection and Ascension

There are at least three overriding functions of the resurrection chapter (Talbert 1992).

The first overriding function is to state the nature of Jesus’ victory over death. The evangelist’s view can only be grasped if seen in the context of early Christian understanding of Jesus’ resurrection and the Lukan understanding of Jesus as a prototype of Christian existence. On the one hand, in earliest Christianity the resurrection of Jesus encompassed three different realities: (1) Jesus’ victory over death; (2) his removal from human time and space into another dimension (that of God); and (3) his new function as cosmic Lord.

In Luke-Acts the unity of these three realities is broken and they become three separate events on a chronological time line. (1) The resurrection of Jesus is reduced to the reality of his victory over death. (2) The ascension becomes Jesus’ removal to heaven. (3) The exaltation designates the moment of Jesus’ new status as Lord and Christ. It may be said that this division of a unity into its parts, when done by Luke, is for “the sake of analysis”: by taking the different pieces of a whole individually, the evangelist can focus on the meaning of each without distraction. This means, however, that in Luke-Acts the resurrection of Jesus refers only to Jesus’ victory over death.

On the other hand, Jesus functions as a prototype of Christian existence. As we have seen, he is the pioneer who goes before, opening the Way for his disciples to follow. His existence, then, is a model for what his followers may expect. Given this, if Luke speaks about the nature of Jesus’ victory over death, it must be taken as a comment about the nature of the victory over death for which Christians hope also. Against this double background we may investigate the resurrection traditions of Luke 24.

Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 255–56.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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